Education foundation unveils virtual STEM

June 9, 2014

By Lisa Capobianco
Staff Writer
Innovative, creative and experiential are three words described by the Southington Education Foundation (SEF) when reflecting on the lessons that over a dozen teachers in the district created for Virtual STEM University (VSU).
Last week, nine teachers unveiled their projects during a launch event held at South End School where other educators and Board of Education members attended. VSU is a web-based, educational resource for teachers that provide easy access to lesson design plans in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
“VSU is a resource for meaningful instruction and is an opportunity for Southington educators to share their unit activities and lesson plans,” said Jan Galati, the chairman of SEF. “Come this fall I feel confident that students in the classrooms will be so excited and so motivated to jump in and do all of these activities.”
John Duffy, the district science coordinator, said all units created by teachers were required to incorporate most if not all of the four components of STEM.  He said teachers took on that challenge in a variety of ways, and they created each unit to be standards-based and curriculum-based. Both Duffy and District Math Coordinator Dale Riedinger provided teachers feedback during the project executions.
“We wanted them to fit the curriculum so teachers would enhance their instruction,” said Duffy, noting how the math units fit the Common Core State Standards and the science units fit the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).
From designing a solution to reduce runoff to building a catapult that would launch a marshmallow the farthest to exploring force and motion through the creation of a dam, students in the elementary and middle schools immersed themselves in a variety of hands-on lessons that incorporated STEM.
One STEM Project that took place at Plantsville Elementary School gave first graders an opportunity to explore animal classification by investigating the sizes of mammals, arranging their own habitat and making their own birds.
“It’s a 14-day unit—there’s a lot to it,” said Duffy during the event.
For Charity Baker, who took on the project with fellow teachers Regina Albee and Christina McKirryher, the “Animal Classification” unit served as an interactive way to engage their units in a lesson that can be accessed easily. Baker said the hands-on activities such as building a frog habitat or bird allowed the students to ask more in-depth questions.
“They loved the hands-on component,” said Baker, adding how the unit also incorporated video and audio clips. “It allowed the children to delve more deeply into animal adaptation.”
During the event, Jennifer Irazabal and Sara Cavanaugh, two teachers of South End School, provided an overview of the STEM project, which explored force and motion through the creation of a dam. Designed for both fourth and fifth grade students, the unit allowed teachers to use the unit in its entirety, but was also designed in a way that teachers could also use one lesson, adding flexibility to the project.
“We really thought it was important we could create a unit with fourth grade and fifth grade curriculum, so there was a lot of planning between us,” said Irazabal.  “We also thought it really important that teachers could implement a unit its entirety, but we were also very careful planning the lessons so that you could pull out one lesson and use it to supplement what you were doing with your unit.”
Irazabal said the lessons started off with WebQuest (the technology component of STEM), which students used to build their own background knowledge of dams, since they built one as part of the performance task. Session two involved reviewing the “performance task,” which was the real-world application that combined all the lessons and ideas students learned. Sessions three and four involved conducting investigations or experiments for levers, pullies, force and pressure, followed by the planning phase of the performance task—building the dam, which served as the engineering component of STEM. Students took part in the math component of the project when they collected, organized and graphed data.
As the final performance task, Irazabal and Cavanaugh said students were required to create a dam that successfully held back all the water provided to them using various materials, such as an empty book bin. After the task, students examined why their dams were not successful.
“A large part of the performance task involved reflection,” said Irazabal, adding that the research component of the project fit well with the language arts component of the curriculum, which also involves research. “After they build their first dam, we don’t expect them to be successful the first time around.”
“Talking to them later about how they would re-engineer it—that was the key piece we were looking for,” added Cavanaugh.
Less than a year ago, Dawn Miceli, the former SEF chairman, came to the executive board with a proposal called the “five-prong commitment to STEM enrichment,” said Galati. A major component of this proposal included the Virtual STEM University. With the support of former Southington Supt. of Schools Dr. Joseph Erardi, Miceli and Tony Sheffy (the director of SEF) brought the proposal into action.

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